Sunday, October 23, 2016

Queen of Katwe

Directed by Mira Nair, 2016

Starring: David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga

Production companies:  Walt Disney Pictures, ESPN Films, and Mirabai Films

A review of the film

There are few films at local theaters that I would actually recommend.  The Queen of Katwe is an exception and I highly recommend seeing it.

I’ve always been attracted to stories of athletes who overcome disadvantages to achieve distinction in their sport.  Most of those stories take place in this country.  Clearly one out of every six people in this country do not have enough food to eat, and there are tremendous obstacles to overcome here in order to become an athletic star.  However, looking at the reality portrayed in the Queen of Katwe, we can see a whole new level of seemingly impossible obstacles that need to be overcome every day.

Before we look at the reality faced by ten-year old Phiona Mutesi portrayed by Madina Nalwanga, I believe it is useful to look at a bit of the history of Uganda.


Uganda, even in the ancient past, has been a center for food production.  One article I read argued that Uganda alone has the potential to feed the entire African continent. 

The capital Kampala is close to Lake Victoria.  The Banganda people who live in this area call this lake Nnalumbale and it is the second largest fresh water lake in the world.  The neighborhood of Katwe is one of the least affluent in Kampala.

Initially Ivory was the primary product European traders took from this region.  Then cotton production became highly lucrative.  Today coffee is the most valued export. 

Although the land of Uganda is very fertile, it is a landlocked country.  There is a rail line connecting Uganda with the port of Mombasa in Kenya.  This rail line facilitates the exports that have only benefitted a minority of the population.

Those who are at all familiar with Uganda think of the military dictator Idi Amin Dada.  Idi Amin was only one of the many military dictatorships the United States government has supported.  In order to sustain the poverty experienced by the masses of people all over the world, military dictatorships have been necessary.

Phiona Mutesi

The film Queen of Katwe begins when we see ten-year old Phiona selling corn in a highly congested area of Kampala.  We see that her brothers and sisters also need to sell corn for her family to survive.  Phiona’s mother who is portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o raises the family.  Her father passed away before the beginning of the timeline of the film.

Robert Katende, portrayed by David Oyelowo, had just graduated at the top of his class with an engineering degree.  In a rational world, engineers would be needed to modernize Uganda.  However, Katende is unable to find work as an engineer and takes a low paying job working with young people teaching them soccer and chess.

Phiona becomes interested in chess and Katende accepts her into his class.  During her first day to learn the game, no one wanted to play with her because she had an odor.  On her second day, she cleaned herself and began to learn the game.

The students at the chess class received a lunch that appeared to consist of corn meal.  Because Phiona and her brother had this lunch, they volunteered to give their dinner to their mother so she could have a larger portion.

When her mother learned that Phiona was spending time learning chess, she was initially outraged.  Her mother felt that this time would be better spent selling corn to get the money her family needed to live.  Gradually Phiona’s mother began to realize that playing chess could be a bridge to a better life for her daughter.

In another scene, Phiona’s brother was severely injured when he was hit by a motorcycle.  Phiona paid for someone to take her brother to the hospital.  After the surgery, Phiona’s mother learned that she could not afford the hospital costs and took her son home before he recuperated.  Because Phiona used money to take her brother to the hospital, her mother didn’t have rent money and the family was evicted from their home.

In the United States when there are heavy rains some people loose their homes due to flooding.  In Kampala this is a routine occurrence.  When the heavy rains came to Kampala, Phiona’s family lost their possessions and her nephew nearly lost his life.

The chess team from Katwe travelled to a more affluent area of Uganda where they would compete in a tournament.  The team was offered beds that they could use for the night.  Apparently no one from the team had ever slept in a bed and the entire team slept on the floor.

Because Phiona’s family didn’t have access to running water, she needed to carry water to her home.  In order to cook food, the family needed to gain access to wood.  Apparently the wood used for cooking is taken from the forests of Uganda.  This threatens the entire ecosystem of the country.

Learning to read had never been an option for Phiona.  Robert Katende’s wife taught Phiona to read and this would begin to transform her life.

In spite of all these obstacles, Phiona demonstrated that she had the ability to outsmart some of the best chess players in the world.  While she eventually manages to improve her life, the conditions in Uganda for most of the population clearly remain unchanged.


Seeing this story we can gain a deeper appreciation of the Cuban reality.  Shortly after the revolution of 1959, the government worked diligently to make sure everyone on the island knew how to read.  The government also worked to make sure everyone had access to running water as well as electrical power.

Today Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world.  No Cuban needs to pay for health care.

In the recent hurricane that devastated Haiti and parts of the United States, the Cuban government organized an evacuation.  While the hurricane caused the loss of lives in Haiti and the United States, no one lost their life in Cuba.

Clearly these are not the conclusions that the producers of the film Queen of Katwe would like viewers to think about.  Those producers include: Walt Disney Productions, and ESPN Films.   

The conditions that Phiona experienced in Uganda are experienced by billions of people all over the world.  About half of the world’s population lives on two dollars per day or less.  The film Queen of Katwe as well as the Cuban example demonstrate that working people clearly have the potential to transform the world.

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